Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Asian Nations and Their Frowning Glories

                       Work hard...

...play hard.

Unhappy that your life is dominated by one or more of these nagging issues?
  1. Feeling poor next to your universally workaholic neighbors, despite your country’s per capita GDP of up to US$50-60,000
  2. Experiencing claustrophobia because astronomically high real estate prices force you to live in concrete shoeboxes as small as twelve square meters per person
  3. Feeling compelled by a cutthroat education system to spend $5-10,000 per month on private tutors
  4. Losing an arm or leg in an accident and realizing that getting more than basic medical care will cost you the remaining limbs...
  5. Having achieved the five C’s (cash, credit card, car, condo, club) but still feeling like Crap
  6. Owning an insufficient quantity of leather products emblazoned with a LV, Chanel or Hermes logo
  7. Fighting spiritual hunger pangs because trying to devour wealth has left you starved for the arts, culture and hobbies
Welcome to wealthy Asia! In almost every ranking of countries on a “happiness” scale, irrespective of the metrics used, advanced Asian countries such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea and Japan generally rank very low, despite the affluence of their citizens. (A recent South China Morning Post article provides updated figures http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1131222/singapore-hong-kong-face-happiness-deficit ). The reasons cited for the prevalence of all these blues are invariably amongst those listed above.
The happiest countries tend to be in Latin America (e.g Panama, Paraguay, Costa Rica) or in cold climates (e.g. Finland, the Netherlands, Canada, Denmark) where the governments tax their people heavily but try to provide high quality social services and keep wealth disparity in check. To be fair to Asia, a number of Southeast Asian countries also rank highly in happiness, including the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. And let’s not forget that Bhutan famously uses a Gross National Happiness index to measure welfare.

The North Asian countries' widely admired achievements in economic development and wealth have been costly on the human level. A clear by-product of all that hard effort is a society full of long faces and unsettled stomachs. The “1% class” is so designated precisely because its members are few and far between. That means that the vast majority of the population will not be able to cram into that room. But luckily, wealth is not inextricably linked to contentment. A sense of belonging to a fair and even-handed community, on the other hand, is necessary. In the already prosperous Asian countries, elevating the GNH index, whether so named or not, needs to be a rising priority. Policy focus should be on achieving fewer frowns, not more crowns. 

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